Bluegrass, Blues and Barhopping at SXSW

Cannon, Tillis, Lawson Among Artists Showcasing in Austin

AUSTIN, Texas — There are so many reasons to love Austin — the music clubs, the sunshine, the tacos, the local brews. But most importantly, the city’s famously liberal way of thinking is absolutely essential during the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, which runs through Sunday. Even the most experienced (and jaded) music industry movers and shakers are likely to fall for a band they’ve never heard of, but only when they get out there and look.

The music officially started Wednesday (March 16) at 8 p.m. at venues all over town. At an outdoor stage at Opal Divine’s Freehouse, Nashville singer Melonie Cannon graciously led the night of bluegrass. She humbly noted that it was her first time in a multi-artist lineup of such high caliber. (The Grascals, Alecia Nugent, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Peter Rowan were also on the bill.) Somebody hollered out a request for “What Took You So Long,” which she squeezed in before concluding with “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” a classic country song written by her father Buddy Cannon, who came down from Nashville for the showcase.

After a few minutes staring at the empty stage at Fox & Hound, I asked the guy at the door if Holly Williams had canceled. He said yes– and started to say why but stopped himself short. I guess I should have asked her myself, because when I walked into Antone’s a few minutes later, I ended up standing right next to her.

However, I was far more interested in Hubert Sumlin, a legendary blues guitarist who played with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. This type of beer-soaked blues is exactly why Antone’s — one of Austin’s most famous clubs — was built in the first place. Robert Plant enjoyed the set from the side, but good friend Elvis Costello marched onstage to sing with Sumlin, and you couldn’t mistake their mutual admiration. I gotta get this record.

Tillis started late but managed to fit in an impressive batch of new tunes for her first-ever SXSW showcase. Before she became a star, she often sang in Nashville clubs, so she wasn’t much out of her element here. “We’re having all this fun and Mexican food, too!” she teased. Along with a handful of fresh material — if you dig her albums, you’ll be satisfied with the new stuff, too — she threw in “Heart Over Mind” and “Mental Revenge,” written by her dad.

After being jostled throughout “Good Hearted Man” and “Still Pretending,” I left Tift Merritt behind at La Zona Rosa, returning to Fox & Hound for Shooter Jennings. He may not try a stripped-down set when he goes on tour with Toby Keith, but his music certainly excels in that vein. He inherited his swagger from his dad, Waylon Jennings, yet shows promise as a singer-songwriter in his own right.

Back at Opal Divine’s, standing outside at midnight in chilly weather, I could hardly wait for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, who remain the most dynamic bluegrass band I’ve ever heard. Even with a new album on the way, they relied on crowd favorites like “Julie Ann,” “Yellow River” and “Blue Train (of the Heartache Line).” The three-part harmonies of Lawson, Barry Scott and Jamie Dailey simply can’t be beat in any genre of music. I’ve seen them play a few times in a variety of circumstances but never to an audience as happy, enthusiastic and ready to get down as this one.

Lawson also served on a bluegrass panel on Thursday (March 17), with singer Marty Raybon, the Grascals’ Jimmy Mattingly, Rounder Records founder Ken Irwin, Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona and journalist Jon Weisberger. Asked why bluegrass sustained its momentum following the O Brother, Where Art Thou phenomenon, they quickly credited the Internet and good publicity — two tools essential in any genre for letting people discover music that rarely gets played on radio.

Indeed, O Brother proved you never know what’s going to break out. That’s why Thursday night turned into a marathon night of music, trying to see as much as possible. At the Driskill Hotel, the big labels hosted a happy hour that featured buzz band Blue Merle, offbeat singer-songwriter Glen Phillips, hip-hop folkie Mat Kearney and bluesy teen Kyle Riabko. Down the street, Peter Bradley Adams (formerly of eastmountainsouth) offered soothing and hypnotic new music, living in that area where country music meets Sarah McLachlan. The desire to light candles was overwhelming.

After that, for a few songs each, I heard a strong-voiced Scandinavian singer-songwriter (Tina Dico), a goth Queen-like duo from the UK (People in Planes), buoyant rock with ukeleles (Apollo Sunshine) and a gruff-but-poetic songwriter (Trevor Hall, who impressed me enough to get the CD).

The next hour brought the following: Milton Mapes, an Austin rock band with a solid, excellent undercurrent of bass and drums; Houston hip-hop revue Zin; disgruntled Austin songwriter (quite a few f-bombs in his stage banter); and the passionate and radio-ready rock band from Brooklyn, N.Y., named the Honorary Title. (I picked up a CD from the last band, too.)

At 11, I caught a few songs from Scotland’s Trashcan Sinatras and poked my head in for Toronto band Cheerleadr, profanity-laced rock from a Chicago band, the Reputation, and enjoyable pop-rock from L.A.’s Earlimart. Because it was St. Patrick’s Day, green foam stovepipes were the fashion statement of the night, and one bar offered unfortunately-titled shots called Irish Car Bombs.

After midnight, my musical luck ran out, so I hopped into a bike taxi to catch the last part of Kathleen Edwards’ set, arriving just in time for “Copied Keys” and “Back to Me.” The next band took far too long to set up, so I crossed the street to Sake on Sixth for the Salteens, a five-piece ensemble from Vancouver, British Columbia, that was completely unknown to me. However, I’m a total fan now. Syncopated handclaps, trumpet, completely joyous melodies — their set was extraordinarily entertaining and exactly the reason why you should never go to bed early during SXSW.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.